The Frigate Debate

The potential purchase of the ANZAC frigates was possibly the most strongly debated defence purchase of the century, generating significant public discussion and media coverage. It was clear almost from the outset of the frigate debate that the Government was intent on maintaining a blue-water capability, just as their predecessors had determined in 1983 and 1978. ‘One key point is clear: as an island nation we need a navy,’ said the Minister of Defence in a December 1988 discussion paper.[27] What was less clear was what form of vessel would replace the frigates and form the core of the RNZN’s capability. At the centre of the debate were arguments about cost and utility. Members of the peace movement, politicians and service personnel, both serving and retired, produced a plethora of articles.

This debate about the frigates raged throughout 1988 and 1989, quickening pace as it went along. Members of the peace movement and others opposed to the frigate purchase were quick to raise their concerns, whilst the New Zealand Government seemed slow to rebuff its critics.

Lieutenant Commander David Davies (a retired RN and RNZN officer) was strongly critical of the Government’s stance, and wrote a lengthy paper arguing against the frigate purchase, fundamentally on the basis of their lack of utility for New Zealand’s needs.[28] He argued that the current four frigate force had been used in much the same way as frigates had been used throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with an emphasis on overseas deployments and very little time on active service in New Zealand.[29] With the introduction of a new Fisheries Act in 1976, New Zealand had indicated its intention to declare a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and, through his experience as Fisheries Controller at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Davies felt certain that the resulting 1.4 million square miles of ocean had inadequate protection. Furthermore, he suggested it never could have as long as the deep-sea navy consisted of four frigates. His concern centred on reports that he had received from several different sources about the illegal activities of longliners fishing north of the Kermadecs. If these reports were accurate, he suggested, this activity would lead to significant depletion of stocks of juvenile fish:

I am very strongly of the opinion that the deep-sea resources of the EEZ are not only under threat but are under attack and have been from the earliest days of the declaration of the 200mile Exclusive Economic Zone. I would also speculate that unless we get our defences in place to combat this situation very soon, irreparable damage will be caused.[30]

Davies was concerned that the RNZN should have sufficient vessels, of sufficient capability, to ensure adequate protection of New Zealand’s EEZ, and to undertake the other tasks spelt out in the 1987 Defence Review. He suggested that six ships was the smallest possible working group, and discounted any meaningful role for the Lake-class patrol boats which were still nominally in Navy service at the time.[31] Whilst not specifying the type of vessel which would best meet New Zealand’s needs, he suggested specifications which were similar to a well equipped OPV.

When the arguments against the ANZAC frigates were put forward by the peace movement, they drew attention to the highly sophisticated nature of the proposed vessels. ‘What you see here is a very sophisticated modern warship, one of the most sophisticated armaments in the world today,’ is how David Knox of the Meko 200 consortium described their proposed ship.[32]

In August 1988 Peace Movement Aotearoa published its case against the frigates. They highlighted that the issue should not just be seen as a military or Government spending issue, but also as a moral issue. They reflected the feeling that few in the Labour Government supported the project, and that if the project went ahead it would be ‘purely for short term political reasons’, and that ‘most of the pressure is coming from the Australians whose shipbuilding industry is operating under-capacity and who are keen to build a defence export industry’.[33] The cost of the project was viewed as preposterous when spending was being squeezed in so many other crucial areas, and this was seen as the biggest single reason for not proceeding with the purchase. The point was carefully made that Treasury had emphasised that the need to reduce the deficit should take financial precedence over other Government objectives, and quoted an Evening Post editorial which had asked: ‘Can the Government seriously be contemplating expenditure of nearly $2 billion, or more, at a time when gas reserves are being sold off to pay off part of the national debt?’[34] The RNZN was attacked for driving the project for historical reasons—a continuing wish for an anti-submarine capacity and an ANZUS role, and for pushing through a project ‘they know isn’t reasonable’.[35]

Peace Movement Aotearoa proposed a new concept navy, based also on six ocean-going vessels—two multi-purpose support ships, and four resource protection ships. Whilst it did not specify that these should be Castle-class vessels, they did comment that the approach from the Whangarei Engineering and Construction Co. to the Ministry of Defence, indicating that it had the capacity to build the Castle-class OPVs, should have been taken more seriously. They also suggested that the RNZN’s priorities should be completely re-assessed, and that the current emphasis on anti-submarine warfare training be replaced by training for tasks which were actually needed. The following month, the Labour Party’s Dunedin conference rejected the ANZAC ship program, and in October a Heylen poll conducted for the television program Frontline indicated that 76 per cent of the population was against the frigate deal.

The Government was slow to respond to criticism, but in October Tizard indicated that the Government was serious about the project, and that from then on criticism would be met with a Government publicity campaign. He began this himself with a presentation to the Tawa Rotary Club in November. Here he commented that the project had been very much in the media spotlight over the previous six months, and that it had been ‘subject to an intense, emotional campaign by the New Zealand peace movement’.[36] Tizard wished to take the opportunity to ‘blow the logic back into the debate’.[37] He went on to summarise the reasons for the purchase of the ANZAC frigates, highlighting the block obsolescence of the Leanders, and the requirements of the 1987 Review. In addition to the baseline characteristics, he emphasised the ‘fitted for, but not with’ weapons capability of the vessels, which would allow for ‘equipment such as anti-ship missiles, towed array sonar, and close-in weapon systems (to) be fitted later if circumstances demand’.[38] Tizard emphasised that the frigates would come with an adequate level of equipment to protect themselves in low threat environments, responding to critics who had expressed concern that the vessels would have insufficient self-defence capabilities. Echoing his comments of the previous year, he once more stressed the resource protection, disaster relief and search and rescue, and the low-level military roles of the vessels, adding: ‘If these ships never fire a shot in anger, then I shall be pleased, because throughout their lives these vessels will be busy performing peacetime roles.’[39]

Peace Movement Aotearoa and others had been highly critical of the cost of the frigates, but the Prime Minister sought to put the deal in perspective at a press conference in November 1988:

Now I believe that people will gradually get the whole thing into context when they recognise that there is going to be no whipping out there and asking for $2 billion. That it is accommodated within the vote. That at the maximum projection it reaches $100 million a year. Now we are spending about $16.9 billion—not million, but billion dollars a year—on health, education and social welfare.[40]

Alexander Fry, the Assistant Editor of the New Zealand Listener also sought to give some sense of proportion to the debate when he commented:

Aggregating the expenditure on ships over 20 years and coming up with a figure of $2 billion is itself a cheap shot. We could do the same for education ($60 billion in twenty years) and frighten ourselves off education. The fact is that New Zealand spends less on defence than most developed countries. Nobody wants to increase that dramatically, so we need intelligent debate before the final decision on ships is made.[41]

The debate was set to continue. The publication in December 1988 of New Zealand Defence, Resource Management Review (which was to become known as The Quigley Report) saw another step taken in the process of major state sector reforms, which were the hallmark of the Fourth Labour Government. Whilst many of the reforms suggested were focused on structural and fiscal concerns, opportunity was nonetheless taken to comment on the ANZAC frigate proposal

The ANZAC ship project is seen by Australia as a litmus test of New Zealand’s commitment to the trans-Tasman relationship. But in our view, this project involves much more than a decision to purchase or not to purchase frigates. The Australians have made it clear that if New Zealand opts out of the project, this will be regarded as raising questions not only about our defence credibility but about our overall commitment to closer relations with Australia generally. Failure to purchase the frigates will be interpreted by the Australians as an unwillingness on New Zealand’s part to play a credible role as a defence partner in the region and signal that we are in the process of withdrawal from the ‘community of friends’. It will also be interpreted as a clear sign that we are not prepared to recognize that Australia is itself prepared to pay a substantial price in monetary and non-monetary terms to ensure that New Zealand remains a credible defence partner. The ‘price’ which Australia is prepared to pay has already been extended to a commitment that New Zealand will not find comparable ships which cost less from other sources.[42]

Also in December 1988, the Minister of Defence released a discussion paper which provided a clear critique of previous defence planning. It drew attention to the exaggerated view previously held of the direct threat to New Zealand, and the lack of planning for more likely contingencies. It highlighted equipment weaknesses in each of the services, and the lack of logistical resources needed for regional operations. As the paper discussed the specific requirements for the replacement of the frigates, it highlighted one of the biggest dilemmas facing the Government—that of specification: ‘On the face of it our requirements are simple. For most of the situations New Zealand ships might expect to face the question of “threat” does not arise.’[43] Much criticism had been raised about the level of equipment with which the ships were to be fitted, driving the price. The Minister squarely raised the question of what self-defence capabilities were appropriate, pointing to the RNZN’s recommendation for specifications close to those of NATO vessels; however, he indicated that the New Zealand Government would pursue a lesser specification. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the vessels would have to be suitably equipped to take account of the possibility that they might be used in coming to the defence of Australia. The tenor of the times was reflected in the Minister’s careful use of language: ‘The question of a military role for these ships is not an easy area for public discussion.’[44] Nevertheless, the Minister once again spelt out the Government’s commitment to maintaining New Zealand’s naval forces so that the country could make a contribution to international security, and would not limit the RNZN to the role of coastguard:

That is not the Government’s intention. Current defence policy is founded on a wider regional view of New Zealand’s defence interests and responsibilities. The decision to take the coastguard route would be difficult to reconcile with those commitments. In some circumstances it could prevent the use of New Zealand ships in situations where they were needed.[45]

Fears about the possible roles for the ships, and the possibility that they might draw New Zealand back into the ANZUS alliance remained strong, as did the opposition to the ships from within the Labour Party. The same month as the Minister released his paper, the Labour Party president, Ruth Dyson, commented that ‘buying the frigates is not inevitable’,[46] and later that month the Party was reported to be working on a package which would outline a range of cheaper alternatives to the Government.

The debate about the frigates continued to rage into 1989. The year began with a major seminar in Wellington, hosted by the Pacific Institute of Resource Management. Terence O’Brien, at the time Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of External Relations and Trade, ended his presentation thus:

My conclusion is simply that the case for alternatives has not yet really been made. The case for proceeding along the road that the Government set two years ago remains undisturbed in terms of hard-nosed NZ national and external interests.[47]

Kevin Hackwell from Just Defence responded in his presentation:

In his paper, Mr O’Brien stated that for anyone to argue for an alternative ship to the ANZAC frigate they would first have to rewrite the 1987 Defence White Paper …

It is Just Defence’s belief that an accurate reading of the White Paper leads inevitably to the conclusion that New Zealand should be buying alternative ships that are very different from the ANZAC frigates.[48]

It was the case that the baseline characteristics approved by the Labour Cabinet on 15 July 1987 provided for a significantly higher level of capability than had been intended by the White Paper.[49] The baseline specifications set for the frigates to be acquired by New Zealand were exactly the same as those earlier set by the Australians for their own frigates:[50]

New Zealand requirements could not be said to have been arrived at independently. Mr [Frank] O’Flynn agreed, pointing out that as the Minister of Defence who had signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Australia, he had had no control over the provision of baseline characteristics for the New Zealand ships.[51]

David Lange couched his observations about the ships specifications quite carefully when he addressed the 73rd Dominion Council Meeting of the Returned Services’ Association on 12 June 1989:

I think it is fair to say that the ANZAC design is toward the higher end of the spectrum envisaged by the 1987 White Paper. … We set out in the 1987 Review the sort of characteristics we had in mind. … It is no secret that we originally expected to end up with something more like a patrol boat.[52]

The Australians, however, were determined that New Zealand would not end up with just patrol boats.

What’s in a name?

External sources of influence were quite apparent when it came to New Zealand narrowing down the alternatives, and deciding whether it would pursue the opportunity to join the Australians for the ‘Australian Ocean Combat Ship’ option. Those influences were both subtle and not so subtle, impacting from the time of the naming of the project, through to New Zealand’s decision to proceed with purchasing two ANZACS:

The glorious name of ANZAC (Australia–New Zealand Army Corps) of WW1 and WW2 fame has been adopted for the programme, despite perhaps being incongruous for a naval project, in that it is a traditional symbol of virtually all forms of military co-operation between the two countries.[53]

In June 1989, the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University published a paper by former New Zealand Defence Secretary Denis McLean, and Desmond Ball, at the time Head of the SDSC, titled simply The ANZAC Ships.[54] They also sought to draw on the ANZAC connection in their support for the joint project:

The ANZAC connection is, in terms of its breadth, intimacy and longevity, a rare phenomenon in the modern world. … But a common cultural heritage overlapping geostrategic interests and a long tradition of close cooperation in the defence field mean that it would be folly radically to diverge in our regional defence policies and military programmes.[55]

The peace movement was not impressed:

It’s clear why the name ‘ANZAC’ was chosen for the new frigates. It’s easier for the Navy to appeal to sentimental, backward-looking associations with past wars rather than think through what a real role in the South Pacific would mean today.[56]

Rear Admiral David Campbell was Secretary to the Australian Chief of Naval Staff at the time, and recalls the emphasis accorded to the ANZAC connection:

Minister Kim Beazley was very keen in the early days of this project that NZ should be involved, and the more the better. He was of the view that every encouragement and assistance should be given to NZ to remain fully engaged in regional defence. All sorts of bad vibes were seen as coming from NZ after the ANZUS split. CNS knew full well from his political master that he had to exercise as much influence over his RNZN counterpart as possible. I recall special pressure being placed in the lead-up to and the conduct of the inaugural Western Pacific Naval Symposium in ’86. Part of the pressure was the selection of the name of the ship class.

Naming ships in the RAN is a very serious business. There is a Ships’ Names Committee whose secretariat sifts and sorts the many hundreds of submissions that come in each year. Ship Associations are the most vociferous but ideas come from city councils and individuals as well. The Committee also looks after ships’ badges and other naval heraldry. The new frigates attracted their share of nominations and Tribal and Bathurst class were prominent, after their WW2 and Korean forebears. In the end, CNS (Vice Admiral M.W. Hudson) personally decided on Anzac. Not only was she an honoured name in the RAN (with two predecessors) but there was very powerful symbology in the New Zealand connection and that, I believe, was uppermost in CNS’s mind. (All of which, I’m bound to say, was against the expert and earnest advice of his Secretary, who urged Tasman. There had been an earlier ship of that name and the same NZ connection was there. Better, indeed, since it was a maritime connection and not just a khaki, Army thing. The Secretary still sulks over the decision. Naming ships is a very serious business indeed.)

In the event, the name was well received in NZ. But it’s interesting that it was such a calculated thing. I don’t know whether in fact it had any influence on the NZ decision, but it was certainly hoped and intended that it would.[57]

Admiral Hudson commented;

I cannot recall the precise date on which the term ‘ANZAC’ was made public, but its origin lay in a single cross Tasman telephone conversation between RADM Doug Domett and myself. We needed some symbolism that this would be a truly joint project and I suggested ‘ANZAC’ as one that politicians on both sides would be hard put to ignore. He agreed immediately and, as we anticipated, it was quickly taken up. This possibly was the easiest part of the whole project.[58]

Whether the naming of the project did or did not have any influence on the decision, Australian politicians were determined that they would have.

Throughout the two and a half years leading up to New Zealand’s decision about whether to sign up to the ANZAC shipbuilding program, the Australians made it very clear that they wanted New Zealand involvement. As previously indicated, Kim Beazley made it apparent at the time of the release of the 1987 White Paper, that if New Zealand expected close cooperation with Australia it needed to maintain its blue-water and anti-submarine warfare capability.

In June 1988 Senator Gareth Evans reinforced the need for New Zealand to maintain its capability; ‘New Zealand has to decide whether it wants the common security defence relationship with Australia. If it wants it, it’s going to have to bring something worthwhile to that relationship.’[59] That something, as it turned out, was expected to be the purchase of up to four ANZAC frigates.

Whilst there were many denials of apparent Aussie bullying (‘Senator Denies Australian Pressure Over Frigates’ read a headline in the New Zealand Herald),[60] the leaking of a Cabinet paper to the press in November 1988 made clear what the Australians expected:

The Anzac ship project, as Mr Beazley’s own pet project, is something he is determined to see come to fruition. In Mr Beazley’s view the region required the protection of a frigate force of some 20 ships. … Without New Zealand’s help Australia would be three or four ships short of this essential requirement. For these reasons Beazley stressed that Australia was willing to ‘go overboard’ to ensure that New Zealand got the ships at a price it could afford.[61]

Apart from the additional naval capability that the ANZAC ship project promised, the addition of a nominal extra four ships made the unit cost per vessel much more attractive for the Australians, who were determined to redevelop their ailing shipbuilding industry: ‘In announcing the programme, the Australian Minister for Defence, Kim Beazley, described it as “the largest naval shipbuilding programme in Australia’s peacetime history” and commented that “the navy is offering the salvation of Australia’s shipbuilding industry”.’[62]

For reasons of both regional security and domestic politics, Australia wished to ensure that New Zealand committed to the project. Perhaps this was another reason why Australia was willing to ‘go overboard’. John Henderson commented: ‘I worked a lot with Beazley’s office. Beazley was determined we’d have four frigates. Why was he so keen? Because it was make-work for the Australian shipbuilding industry.’[63]

That same day in November 1988 that the Cabinet paper was leaked, David Lange was reported in the Evening Post as saying that New Zealand could not ‘decouple’ its security interests from those of Australia. He went on to say that:

there was no ‘real, practical, logical alternative’ to the joint Anzac frigate building programme. If New Zealand was to withdraw from its joint commitment to Australia, it would ‘tear apart the fabric of a relationship built up over the years that covers everything from politics, law and business to a whole mass of personal and family ties’.[64]

Earlier that day at a post-Caucus press conference, when asked if it was inevitable that New Zealand would be buying from Australia, the Prime Minister replied: ‘Now as I’ve said before, we won’t be buying anywhere else and I have the view that we will be buying ocean combat vessels from Australia.’[65]

The first two issues of the New Zealand International Review in 1989 contained a total of five articles, putting both sides of the issue—and again the question of alternatives was raised.[66] So what were the other alternatives?

[27] Minister of Defence, The Rt. Hon. Robert James Tizard, The Naval Question, Ministry of Defence, Wellington, December 1988, p. 8.

[28] Lieutenant Commander David Davies, RNZN (Ret.), The Case Against the New Zealand Frigate, David Davies, Karori, 1988.

[29] Davies, The Case Against the New Zealand Frigate, p. 5.

[30] Davies, The Case Against the New Zealand Frigate, p. 7. In 2003 the world was barely moved by the revelation that 90 per cent of the world’s large fish stocks had been destroyed. Research in Canada, undertaken by Ransom Myers (fisheries biologist) and Boris Worm, published in Nature magazine, confirmed that the world’s fish stocks were under attack, and that irreparable damage would be caused unless immediate measures for conservation were put in place. The resource base was said to have been reduced to less than 10 per cent of what it had been in 1950, ‘not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles’. National Geographic News, 15 May 2003, available at <>, accessed 12 December 2008.

[31] The Lake-class patrol boats had been another compromise decision which left the RNZN with a boat which was totally unsuited for New Zealand waters. Designed as an inshore craft to work out to a 12 mile limit, its short length meant that it was incapable of dealing adequately with the rough sea states so common around New Zealand, and caused seasickness and injuries even amongst experienced sailors. Four craft had been bought in 1975, HMNZS Pukaki, Rotoiti, Taupo and Hawera. HMNZS Pukaki and Rotoiti were placed in reserve in the mid-1980s and they were all eventually unceremoniously disposed of in 1991.

[32] David Knox, AMEC consortium, Presentation to the Wellington MoD frigate industry briefing, 18 May 1988, cited in Nicky Hager, The case against new frigates, Peace Movement Aotearoa, Wellington, August 1988, p. 4.

[33] Hager, The case against new frigates, p. 1.

[34] Evening Post, 15 April 1988, in Hager, The case against new frigates, p. 1.

[35] Hager, The case against new frigates, p. 6.

[36] Minister of Defence, The Rt. Hon. Robert James Tizard, Address to Tawa Rotary Club, 1 November 1988.

[37] Tizard, Address to Tawa Rotary Club.

[38] Tizard, Address to Tawa Rotary Club, p. 4.

[39] Tizard, Address to Tawa Rotary Club, p. 7.

[40] David Lange, Post Caucus Press Conference. Extracts. 3 November 1988 in. Forrest, ‘The Anzac Frigate Decision: The Rationale of David Lange’, p. 11.

[41] Alexander Fry, Editorial, New Zealand Listener, 3 December 1988.

[42] Strategos Consulting Limited, New Zealand Defence, Resource Management Review 1988, Wellington, 4 December 1988, pp. 234–35.

[43] Tizard, The Naval Question, p. 7.

[44] Tizard, The Naval Question, p. 9.

[45] Tizard, The Naval Question, p. 10.

[46] New Zealand Herald, 7 December 1988.

[47] Pacific Institute of Resource Management, The Anzac Frigate Debate, Pacific Institute of Resource Management Inc., Wellington, February 1989, p. 13.

[48] Pacific Institute of Resource Management, The Anzac Frigate Debate, p. 32.

[49] Forrest, ‘The Anzac Frigate Decision: The Rationale of David Lange’, p. 4.

[50] Policy Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security of the New Zealand Labour Party, Opportunity for New Vision, Response to Conditional Proposal on ANZAC frigates submitted to Policy Committee by Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, Minister of Defence Robert Tizard and Foreign Minister Russell Marshall. Unpublished typescript, 5 September 1989, p. 7.

[51] PACDAC [Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control] Minutes, 30 May 1989.

[52] David Lange, Address to the 73rd Dominion Council Meeting of the Returned Services’ Association, 12 June 1989, p. 8, cited in Forrest, ‘The Anzac Frigate Decision: The Rationale of David Lange’, p. 4.

[53] Ezio Bonsignore, ‘The ANZAC Programme: Frigates for “Down Under”’, Military Technology, vol. 13, no. 3, 3/89, p. 17.

[54] Denis McLean and Desmond Ball, The ANZAC Ships, SDSC Working Paper no. 184, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University, Canberra, June 1989.

[55] McLean and Ball, The ANZAC Ships, p. 2.

[56] Hager, The case against new frigates, p. 4.

[57] Rear-Admiral David Campbell, Correspondence, 15 September 2003.

[58] Admiral Michael W. Hudson, Correspondence, 15 May 2004.

[59] Evening Post, 26 June 1988.

[60] New Zealand Herald, 23 September 1988.

[61] David Lange, Leaked Cabinet paper cited in the Dominion, 3 November 1988.

[62] Bonsignore, ‘The ANZAC Programme: Frigates for “Down Under”’, p. 19.

[63] John Henderson, Personal interview, 21 August 2003.

[64] Evening Post, 3 November 1988.

[65] David Lange, Post Caucus Press Conference, cited in Forrest, ‘The Anzac Frigate Decision: The Rationale of David Lange’, p. 7.

[66] New Zealand International Review, vol. XIV, nos. 1 & 2, 1989.